Home > Defense & Intel > Billion-dollar ships with no sailors – why the Navy needs to prioritize connectivity

Billion-dollar ships with no sailors – why the Navy needs to prioritize connectivity

The average American would find it almost impossible to imagine a life without mobile devices. The evolution of smartphones, tablets, and other smart devices has literally impacted every aspect of our lives – from how we communicate, to how and where we work. Today, mobile devices and pervasive connectivity have changed the way we learn, meet new people, and explore and interact with our environments. But that’s the average American. The American that is in a region or city with wireless connectivity, high-bandwidth Internet access to their home, and WiFi hotspots in every corner café and coffee shop. Not the average sailor in the Navy.

If you were a Navy sailor deployed and stationed on-board a ship-at-sea, the digital services and connectivity that you probably took for granted at home are a distant memory, at most. That’s because basic connectivity is barely available – and high-bandwidth for advanced communications tools and online services is a pipedream.

And that’s a situation that two former Navy sailors – Ernie Higham and Vinny Cordaro of SES Government Solutions – claim could become a real problem for the Navy when it comes to morale, welfare, recruitment, and retention.

We recently sat down with Vinny and Ernie to learn about their experiences in the Navy, what connectivity is like for today’s sailors, and what it would take to make connectivity standard aboard Navy vessels. Here is what they told us:

Government Satellite Report (GSR): What is the current state of connectivity on ships-at-sea? What kinds of digital services and capabilities are available to sailors when they’re deployed?

Vinny Cordaro: The connectivity available for personal use on a Navy ship at sea is pretty much trapped in the past and hasn’t been modernized at the same pace as the Navy’s communications capabilities have. Think about the types of communication that were available to you in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and that’s what many of today’s sailors have at their disposal.

“The future Navy sailors that are out there today grew up with these devices…And we’re going to ask them to put them aside and serve our nation – away from their friends, loved ones, and families? I don’t think that’s a reasonable expectation.” – Ernie Higham

About 15 or 20 years ago, the Navy implemented the connectivity and hardware necessary to enable basic web browsing and email. In fact, I believe that email was implemented around the turn of the century. But anything beyond that isn’t available because bandwidth is severely limited, as it is primarily used to support the ship’s mission.

Consider a ship like an aircraft carrier. The average Nimitz-class aircraft carrier can have more than 6,000 personnel on it. You have a certain, limited amount of bandwidth, and that bandwidth is used for mission-critical needs first. What’s leftover is shared between several thousand users throughout the day.

Ernie Higham: Exactly. With 6,000 sailors sharing limited bandwidth – even if everyone got equal allotment – how much time can they reasonably expect to have online, communicating with family members, or using basic online services like online banking? They’re not going to get a lot of time to do those kinds of things when 6,000 other people on-board the same ship also want and need access to that connectivity.

GSR:
How much interaction do sailors get with their family and loved ones when on a ship-at-sea? Is it possible for them to use video calling and other advanced communications tools that are available to civilians while they’re deployed?

Vinny Cordaro: I can say from my experience in the early 2000s that the communications available to these sailors is limited to very expensive, low-quality voice calls and email. They get access to these calls by buying prepaid cards that they use to call home. If they want decent quality connections, they have to find a phone with trunk access to call off the ship. But to access that, you had to know people and ask for favors.

Needless to say, none of this is conducive to interacting and communicating with family and loved ones in the way we are used to today, and sailors can feel incredibly distant and isolated from their loved ones.

“If they don’t start to prioritize connectivity, the Navy will be facing a future where it has spent billions on futuristic planes and ships, only to have no viable personnel to pilot them. And what good is that?” – Ernie Higham

Many of us experienced isolation from our families during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we can relate. But even then, we had access to Zoom and other video calling and communication services. I don’t believe anything remotely like that is available on these ships-at-sea.

Sailors log onto a shared workstation with very limited privacy. And what they can use that workstation for is very limited. I doubt highly there is enough bandwidth to enable [a video call] like that. Basic Internet browsing is likely all they have available to them.

GSR: If high throughput communications and connectivity were extended to ships-at-sea, what services and capabilities could be enabled? What tools could be made available to sailors that could help with morale and welfare?

Ernie Higham: I was speaking with a Navy Commander recently, and we were discussing the impact of Zoom calls and other video calling technologies on sailors. Access to these technologies is sometimes available to sailors when they’re in port, and he said that they had a drastic impact on the morale of his sailors. And that morale boost translated into other benefits.

He saw people attend birthday parties, anniversary dinners, and other special events via Zoom calls. They were talking to spouses and parents, and other loved ones that were a part of their support system. And he saw that improve their morale, and keep them from becoming what he called, “walking zombies.” It made them better at their jobs, more productive and, generally, better sailors.

Vinny Cordaro: That’s completely correct. When you’re on-board a ship-at-sea, there is no cellphone that you can pick up and use to take care of personal business. You can’t just reach down for your phone and interact with loved ones. And all of the mobile apps – and the functionality and capability that they deliver that we’ve basically started taking for granted – none of that was available.

Ernie Higham: That’s a great point. There are so many things that are done online these days that just aren’t available to sailors because they don’t have connectivity.

For example, going to school online is incredibly common these days. If sailors want to pursue education or advance themselves professionally, that’s just not an option. It’s incredibly difficult for warfighters to continue their education with online coursework when connectivity is limited, and only available on a shared workstation.

There are many schools today that offer graduate and undergraduate programs with online resources – many of which cater to a military audience. These could be available to soldiers from anywhere if they only have the connectivity to access them. And that doesn’t even include the internal training and coursework that they could be completing to advance themselves professionally.

“…none of this is conducive to interacting and communicating with family and loved ones in the way we are used to today, and sailors can feel incredibly distant and isolated from their loved ones.” – Vinny Cordaro

There are promotions and advancement opportunities within the Navy, itself. There are courses that are necessary to advance within the Navy. These sailors wouldn’t have to wait until they return from deployment to take these classes. If connectivity was available to ships-at-sea, they could be completing these trainings and courses while deployed.

GSR: How difficult would it be to make this a reality? What services and hardware would be needed to deliver this kind of connectivity to ships-at-sea?

Ernie Higham: Once contracts are signed, takes just days to get these ships connected. With today’s integrated, mobile satellite terminals and connectivity solutions –like our “Roll On, Roll Off” solution – all that is required is to get one on the ship, hook it up, and connect it to a satellite. Everything needed to get high-bandwidth, low-latency connectivity is built into that solution.

Deploying the mobile solution to the ship can really be the largest challenge, but even that isn’t incredibly difficult or limiting. We’ve deployed “Roll On, Roll Off” solutions to ships in domestic and foreign ports via military aircraft. We’ve even done cross-deck deployments, where we’ve moved one of these “Roll On, Roll Off” solutions from one ship to another.

We’re doing it today. We’ve done it to two carriers at sea, and two carriers in port. And the demand just keeps increasing. The senior Navy leaders want this service for their sailors.

GSR: If there is a real demand for this within the Navy, what’s keeping it from being rolled out to every ship in the fleet?

Vinny Cordaro: In my opinion, there are several factors. There’s the challenge of keeping pace with emerging technology, the lifecycle of equipment and budgetary constraints.

First, it’s important to point out that it takes exponentially more bandwidth than the ships currently have to deliver the type of connectivity one is accustomed to having at home or in the office. The Navy’s existing systems were not designed to do that, nor is that quantity of bandwidth required for the ships to perform their missions.

The Navy’s satellite communications systems were designed to deliver robust, assured connectivity in any environment, and they do that well. The High-throughput, low-latency satellite connectivity that is being provided by the “Roll On, Roll Off” solution did not exist when the Navy’s systems were developed. The bottom line is some of the Navy is going to have to replace a lot of equipment in order to take advantage of the NGSO systems that enable terrestrial-like connectivity at sea, which is a process that is heavily regulated and can take up to 10 years to complete.

“I would argue…shifting personal network-enabled services and capabilities away from dedicated workstations and putting them into the hands of sailors via personal devices could have a major, positive impact on the quality of life in the Navy.” – Vinny Cordaro

The concept of providing connectivity specifically for non-official, quality of life purposes is new to the Navy. Once the Navy determines what kind of personal communications capabilities need to be supported on ships, it can begin to define the requirements for the next generation of satellite communications terminals. As with any major defense acquisition program, the procurement of new systems will require significant investment and will have to compete with other priorities in the defense budget.

Ernie Higham: And that raises another challenge – culture. The Navy has managed to operate for centuries with limited technology. And this has put the organization and its leaders a bit behind the times. This next generation of warfighter has been raised with mobile devices in their hands, and the Navy doesn’t quite understand that – if you don’t provide them access to these devices and capabilities – they’re going to have major issues with morale and retention moving forward.

Vinny Cordaro: The present chapter of the Information Age has revolutionized the way the entire world communicates in the span of a decade. Similar to the way the jet airliner made the world a smaller place in the 1960s, the instantaneous communication enabled by the smartphone has shrunk the world once again.

I’m willing to bet that there are internal discussions among the senior leaders of the Navy right now about how personnel at sea can have improved access to connectivity. But I would argue that separating official and non-official communications, and shifting personal network-enabled services and capabilities away from dedicated workstations and putting them into the hands of sailors via personal devices could have a major, positive impact on the quality of life in the Navy.

GSR: If a change was made and high-bandwidth connectivity were to be made available on Navy vessels, what would be the immediate and long-term impacts on sailors? How could it benefit the larger Navy as a whole?

Vinny Cordaro: I think that the morale boost would be almost immeasurable. Working 14 or 15-hour days on a flight deck is punishing. And then, you’re competing with people to get access to a phone and have a conversation with your loved ones.

That’s frustrating. You’re worn down. You’re isolated from the people that you love. I lived it, and it has an impact on you.

This would improve morale tremendously. That could result in higher retention for the Navy, which would reduce the time, effort, and money that they have to pour into recruitment and training of new personnel. And that would benefit the entire Navy as a whole.

Ernie Higham: I agree with that completely. The Navy would see a reduction in people cost from embracing this technology. People would be less isolated and would stay in the Navy longer. You would have more people that would make the Navy a career instead of leaving prior to their 20-year mark. And there are benefits of that.

There are significant cost savings from increasing retention. There are costs associated with training someone on their job. If they leave that job early because of isolation or the impact of being away from their families, the Navy isn’t getting the full return on that investment.

And isolation is a real issue in the Navy – even in contrast to the other branches of the military. When the Air Force and Army deploy, those warfighters have an Internet Café and get access to things that the Navy can’t give their sailors. Army and Air Force personnel can surf the Internet. They can call home. And that can really make all of the difference. And I would know.

“Working 14 or 15-hour days on a flight deck is punishing. And then, you’re competing with people to get access to a phone and have a conversation with your loved ones…I lived it, and it has an impact on you.” – Vinny Cordaro

I got out of the Navy at the six-year mark. My son was born. And, when I looked at him, I knew that I wanted to be a large and active part of his life. I was deployed for 80 days once, and it was brutal being away from him and my family. And I left the service because of it.

And I’m 65 years old. I didn’t grow up with a device in my hand. But I understand that the culture has changed dramatically. I have a grandniece that is 3 years old and already has a smartphone. The future Navy sailors that are out there today grew up with these devices. These devices are a part of their daily lives. And we’re going to ask them to put them aside and serve our nation – away from their friends, loved ones, and families? I don’t think that’s a reasonable expectation.

If they don’t start to prioritize connectivity, the Navy will be facing a future where it has spent billions on futuristic planes and ships, only to have no viable personnel to pilot them. And what good is that?

For additional information on delivering high throughput, low-latency communications to ships-at-sea, click HERE to download a complimentary copy of the whitepaper, “High Throughput on the High Seas.”

Featured image by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Sarah Chritoph. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

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